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3 Spanish Expressions That Just Don't Translate Into English

Spain Travel
by Corey Breier Oct 22, 2013

There are certain sentiments far better captured by words that don’t exist in the English language. Schadenfreude, a German term for the pleasure taken in someone else’s misfortune, may be the best known of these. There are all sorts of lists compiling such words and phrases, including here at Matador.

My Couch-hosts in Istanbul taught me a wonderful example of this; the entire principle of “the separation of church and state” is imparted in Turkish by the word laiklik. It’s obviously far more elegant and effective in their language. But I don’t speak Turkish, or any of the languages mentioned on most of these lists — as much fun as it is to hear about such words, I can’t truly appreciate how they fit into their language without more background knowledge.

I do speak Spanish, though, and have come across a few words and conventions that fulfill their roles so much better than their English counterparts. I appreciate them all the more, given that I’ve discovered them myself. Sometimes I’ll accidentally slip them into conversation with English-speaking friends, just because they’re so much better.


Aprovechar is a verb usually translated as “to take advantage of.” That alone makes it better — Spanish accomplishes in one word what takes English four. But it’s so much more than that. It also carries the meanings “exploit,” “harness,” “benefit,” and “seize.” To me, it’s all the sentiment expressed in “Carpe Diem” wrapped up in a normal verb you can use in everyday situations.

When you aprovechar something, you don’t just make the most of it — you take every second like it’s your last, you grab it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground, you leave it with no regrets whatsoever. It’s so much more powerful, and also has a delicious sequence of lip movements as you move from the PR to the V to the CH.

Spanish speakers also like to say aproveche rather like bon appetit before a meal, which only increases its power. You may have “enjoyed” your meals, but have you ever “taken advantage of” them? It imparts a whole new level of pleasure and always makes me chew with more gusto. My Catalan apartment mates would use it to make fun of my American-sized pasta dinners that were so large I had to use our flat’s largest pot as a bowl. I’d laugh and proceed to devour the entire thing without fail, which only egged them on more: Surely I had made the most of my pasta.

Tener ganas

Another phrase that’s more powerful in Spanish is tener ganas, which when plugged into the translator comes out simply as “to want.” Once again, it’s much more than that. Tener is “to have” – tener ganas is more like “to have the desire to,” which is far more unwieldy and less satisfying.

English gets a bit closer to the right sentiment with the phrase “You have to want it,” which is a nice succinct Hay que tener ganas en español. Whenever I hear this, I always picture a lusty old Latino man shaking his right arm in front of him with the fingers half clenched into a reproachful claw of warning.

It’s good wisdom with anything you do in life. You have to want it — otherwise, why are you doing it? That same hand gesture is often used to accompany the word cojones, meaning the phrase is forever associated with testicles, which only furthers the narrative, as now you have to have balls to do whatever it is you’re doing.

I would use ganas to explain to my Spanish Couch-hosts while traveling why it was that I could experience so much of their towns in so little time, as I invariably would see things they hadn’t even gotten around to visiting yet. It was the perfect word to encapsulate the strength of a traveler’s will to make the most of their limited time in a new place — with ganas, you can do so much more.

El de la vergüenza

While in Barcelona, I convinced one of my Catalan friends to host me in her parents’ house while I searched for an apartment. Little did I know the one night I needed a bed happened to be the day her entire extended family came over for dinner.

I was already embarrassed that my presence was forcing them to speak in castellano (Spanish) rather than catalán, but that evening I was introduced to a dinner situation even more awkward. We English speakers are familiar with that tricky moment when there’s only one piece of tasty food left in the middle of the table, and everyone sits there trying to figure out how to nab it without appearing selfish.

Yet we have no special word for that special morsel like the Spanish do — it is el de la vergüenza (the piece of shame), a name so powerful it makes me fear my line will be shamed for generations to come if I dare to grab it.

Needless to say I was petrified to nab the last of the tasty turrónes (almond-based confections) we munched on after the main course. My gracious hosts ended up throwing it in my lap, along with numerous cries of Aproveche! Let’s just say I definitely took advantage of that particular little sweet.

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